Film Reviews

The Skin I Live In Pedro Almodóvar

Rating - 5/10

Exemplifying confliction, Pedro Almodóvar’s latest psychological thriller The Skin I Live In [La piel que habito] confronts ideas of transgenesis, sexual and gender identity; however, despite its inherent link to the human condition and sensory involvement like the skin of its title, it lacks fluidly and empathy.  Instead, a disconcerted and detached product emerges in a jumbled, aggravating structure that focuses more on melodramatically postponing a certain plot revelation rather than cutting deeper into the aforementioned topics. The Skin I Live In also boasts a weird juxtaposition and contradiction of sculptress Louise Bourgeois’ vision (as the film serves as an odd sort of tribute to her work) and abundance of consumer eyesores – Ford, Panasonic, Le Creuset, Dolce & Gabbana, and the list goes on and on – that additionally contribute to the subject of Almodóvar’s own creative bewilderment.  The hundred-plus recognized in the credits suggest a dependence that stands in stark contrast to themes of self-direction.  One may argue that the imprisoned, secret surgical experiment, Vera Cruz’s (a beautifully boyish Elena Anaya) determination to be an animated and liberated individual as opposed to a fixed, fetishized sculptural art piece of her creator, Doctor Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas, in an understated performance), overcomes any sort of tonal and structural imbalances, but there’s still an undeniably shuffled presentation of time through various means.  The director tests graceful yet penetrating zooms that evoke the past, titles that state a jump back or forward, and present-day dictation that visually blends into a past memory.  Because of its herky-jerky movement, the film struggles with continuity and a resonant, validating conclusion in a truncated scene that unintentionally leaves a pitied feeling.  Like the set-pieces, momentous and traumatic events feel hollowly withdrawn in cold detail.  In a film that houses a potentially unique sexual element, The Skin I Live In begins with much intrigue but makes displeasing choices, not unlike the renowned plastic surgeon Ledgard.

In the opening minutes, Ledgard is seen delivering a presentation on a new synthetic skin he’s developed from pig cells called ‘gal’ (to honor his late wife, a burn victim), which is resistant to heat and insect bites.  Prefacing his talk on facial transplants, he utters the visually resonant statement of “our face identifies us,” and yet the specific remedial purposes of this speech somehow feel removed from much of his exhibited behavior.  Instead, Almodóvar prefers to delve into a dramatized microcosm of the doctor’s life in a series of malicious, revengeful acts as well as the man’s own voyeuristic tendencies.  Admittedly, Almodóvar’s previous films have expressed a distinctive commentary on gender politics that would often be regarded as melodrama, but in a film like Talk to Her, a tender compassion and focus prevailed. The Skin I Live In immediately seems unsettled by its own metaphorical skin, retreating from the public domain into the graphically depicted private realm in an attempt to reach the heart of Ledgard’s fixations and madness.  An illuminating discussion with Film Quarterly columnist Paul Julian Smith reveals the possible mergence of the film’s eye-raising decisions.  “Vera stitches together fragments of cloth to make faceless figures inspired by Bourgeois’ sculptures…. This use of fabric is a connection between the two apparently contradictory tendencies… its consumerism and its eeriness.” While the form and graces of the designer cloth-sutured figures may be seen to define Vera herself, their anonymity is more evocative of Robert’s luxurious loneliness.  As the film indirectly serves to pay tribute to the human form through the art of Bourgeois and Vera’s practice of yoga to “access a personal tranquility,” the imbalance curiously hides its art in plain sight.  A glance at the screen may reveal the scattered books of Alice Munro (Escapada) and Richard Dawkins (The Selfish Gene), as well as the enduring faceless and/or nude figures from massive Renaissance portraits adorning the mansion walls.  Yet, the bodies both serve to classify and obscure the doctor’s appreciation of beauty as objectification.

While artistic and medical conceptualizations/examinations occupy certain screen time, it is unfortunately the more degrading scenes of sex and brutality (one in the same) that supersede purer intentions in an effort to convey men as animals ruled by primal urge.  Robert Ledgard’s unknown half-brother Zeca, dressed in a Carnival tiger costume, makes a sudden appearance outside his mansion in the first portion of the film.  Coercing Robert’s housekeeper and his own mother, Marilia, he proceeds to infiltrate the residence, and upon witnessing the high-definition observation of Vera’s chambers, he frantically attempts to reach her.  In a deranged pheromone range, he breaks into the room and violates her.  An equally disturbing incident unravels halfway through in a wedding flashback that portrays Robert’s sweetly naïve teenage daughter, Norma (Blanca Suárez), led into a surreally illuminated wooded area with a deliriously high mid-twenty-year-old clothing designer, Vicente (Jan Cornet).  His aggression and desire may be heightened as a result of a psychotropic substance, but the imagery in the film is ultimately too malicious and explicit here for the underdeveloped characters to be effective and genuine in conveying the male oppressor and Norma’s sexual phobia.  Almodóvar and cinematographer José Luis Alcaine capture stimulating and affective moments throughout the film, but they are isolated, much like Vera’s meditative exercises.  Almodóvar seems to let his own idea of man’s selfish instinct dictate the manner in which these sequences are filmed, which thrusts them into indifference.  Human confinement further informs the bestial allusions with the literal imprisonment of Vicente who rapes Ledgard’s daughter (and becomes Vera with the ‘gal’ skin over a prolonged six years of operations) and on more emotional or metaphorical terms.  Vicente is punished because of his gender, yet his change into Vera gives him a certain unforeseen redemption and power he previously lacked.  By staring through the doctor’s cameras, she turns his penchant for viewing her as some sort of sexual guinea pig back on him and devises an escape plan through a false complacency.  This dilemma is the most riveting aspect of the film – one that teases but, unlike the sexual acts, never quite goes far enough.

While The Skin I Live In was inspired by French thriller novel Tarantula [Mygale] by Thierry Jonquet, the promotional poster of a leering Dr. Ledgard behind a masked Vera may prompt preliminary comparison to another French work, Georges Franju’s influential horror film Eyes Without a Face [Les yeux sans visage] (1960).  The relevance is further verified after a viewing of each, particularly in The Skin I Live In’s relationship to Bourgeois and Ledgard’s cosmetic practices.  Eyes Without a Face concerns a doctor’s intent to perform a face transplant on his own daughter.  Curiously, the relationship of Robert to Vera shares these tendencies, but it is of course tainted by mistaken sexual emotion and habits – Robert’s feelings become entangled in part daughter-affection, part-reanimation of his wife, and part-lust.  His initial pursuit of skin-grafting is intensified by his former wife, after a tragic car accident badly burned her and then, unable to bear her own reflection, threw herself out a window.  The film chronicles his attempts to reconcile the tragedy that was beyond his control; but in determinations to restore a certain humanity, he unfortunately pursues perversion in the name of revenge, not science (and spirals into immorality).  As he feels responsible for the creation of Vera’s sexual character, the film never provides a fair assessment of the male Vicente counterpart.  As demonstrated, male impulse seems one-dimensionally categorized.  While The Skin I Live In doesn’t quite take Robert’s own disastrous turns, it does not intimately reveal the doctor’s relationship with his wife either – it just forces sexual compulsions onto the objectified Vera.  Granted, the film’s weird obsessions yield something interesting on the surveillance theme by “emphasizing both the gaze’s reciprocity and the highly aestheticized quality of the images that the house’s video screens exhibit,” as Film Quarterly editor Rob White mentions, and Almodóvar deserves credit for striving towards an unconventional representation of the undeterred female spirit.  It’s just unfortunate the perspective of the film seems rather convoluted and confused, and positive aspects require significant reinforcement.  Unsettling, down to Alberto Igelsias’ trembling musical strings, The Skin I Live In manages to live with itself but never quite figures itself out.